From the porch of Refuge Elisabetta, I watched the sun slide behind the nearby glacier. The outlines of the sharp, jagged peaks were thrown into relief as the moon rose. Shadows slowly claimed the valley below, the outside temperature steadily dropped, and I listened to the quiet chatter of other trekkers. I guess there are some perks to French bureaucracy.
I submitted the paperwork to renew my visa in June, but two months later, the only communication I had received from the office of immigration was to “please wait.” That doesn’t really work when my entry back into France was dependent on having a valid visa. To avoid repercussions, I came back to France 10 days earlier than intended, much to my dismay.
Leaving my family, Colorado friends, and the mountains of Telluride to return to an urban city in the middle of a heatwave was tough. It didn’t help that essentially the whole French population takes the month of August off, and Paris was entirely empty. I would be hard-pressed to even get a coffee at a local café, let alone try to access my bank account.
Upon my arrival in Paris, I went straight to the immigration office, where the five employees present were clearly not pleased to be working while the rest of the country was on vacation. Three hours later, I was officially allowed to stay in France until next November. My new legal status meant that I wanted to escape Paris as quickly as possible.
If I couldn’t be in Colorado, I still needed to be in the mountains. Two days later, thanks to some student-discounted train tickets and unexpected availability at two mountain huts in the Italian Alps, I found myself on a 7 a.m. train to Chamonix.
Six hours later, I, quite literally, hit the ground running. I would be willing to guess that the majority of people who hike the Tour du Mont Blanc do so with more forethought than I did, but I was willing to be creative. This meant running both clockwise and counterclockwise along the trail, a bus trip across the border into Italy, and heavy mileage days.
I initiated my trip Chamonix by running the segment of the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) between Tré-Le-Champ and Chamonix where I got to climb the famous (or maybe infamous) ladders up Lac Mont Blanc.
This trail is typically the last day of the TMB for thru-hikers, but last minute plans meant that my route covered a rather convoluted, non-traditional path so that I could see as much of the 110-mile trail as time, finances, and the ligaments in my knees permitted.
The next morning, after a night at Chamonix’s rather bucolic youth hostel, I boarded a bus to Courmayeur, crossing into Italy through the Mont Blanc Tunnel. After all of my visa tribulations, no one even checked my passport.
From Laverchey, I climbed to Rifugio Bonatti, where I would be staying for the night, then followed the traditional TMB route counterclockwise, plunging deep down into Val Ferret before sharply ascending again, past Rifugio Elena, up winding switchbacks that led to Le Grand Col Ferret — the highest point on the TMB.
My calves protested with each switchback. For the first time, I began to question why I had embarked on this four-day, 60-plus mileage solo journey. I paused to let a man speed-trekking pass me. He turned to me and asked where I was from.
“Colorado,” I said.
“Get out. Where?”
“No way! I’m from Fort Collins. That guy in the red shirt behind us lives in Aspen.”
Especially in the mountains, the world is exceptionally small.
High in the alps, on the border between Switzerland and Italy, I had found home.
Conversations with strangers have never come naturally to me, but after seven hours of solo running (let’s be realistic — fast hiking), I craved human interaction every night. There’s something special about the people who choose to spend seven to 12 days hiking between remote refuges.
I met a girl from Washington who would be studying abroad in France, a couple from Poland who had never hiked before this trip, and a 70-year-old man from Japan who came to hike the TMB all by himself.
Even in isolated mountain huts, the Italians certainly know how to do food. We had multi-course meals, including risotto and panna cotta. As a vegetarian, my alternative to pork was two beautifully plated slabs of gruyère cheese.
After crossing into France on my last day and descending into Les Contamines, my knees had enough. Three miles from the finish, I stopped and treated myself to a giant slice of apricot tart from Refuge Nant Borrant. Beautiful blue sky, comfortable lawn chairs and an exceptional dessert.
The end to my TMB adventure was far from triumphant. After spending literally my last six euros on a lake turned local beach, I did not have enough cash to pay for the bus from Les Contamines to Chamonix. Let me tell you, a 45-minute walk to the train station after running 23 miles with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain, feels like an eternity. After waiting 90 minutes for the next train, I proceeded to get fined 50 euros for getting on the train ONE stop before my Chamonix Valley transit card was valid.
Well, at least now that I’ve been fined by the SNCF, I’m “officially French” according to my friend Bérengère’s mother. What a cultural initiation.
Still, I will always take a 50-euro fine in exchange for five days in the mountains. Many solo miles on rugged terrain, high alpine Italian cappuccinos, and some of the most breathtaking sunrises and sunsets I’ve ever seen revitalized my soul and reminded me why I love to run.
Now back to Paris, where I will be plotting how to feasibly train enough to qualify for the UTMB one day.